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The series begins on the 60th anniversary of the historic polio vaccine trials

TUESDAY, Nov. 25, 2014 -- It's been called the "greatest public health experiment in history."

Sixty years ago, a nationwide trial of the first experimental vaccine against polio was launched in the United States.

Frantic parents -- looking for anything that could beat back the horror of polio, the scourge of the first half of the 20th century -- offered up more than 1.8 million children to serve as test subjects. They were virtual guinea pigs. They included 600,000 kids who would be injected with either the new polio vaccine -- developed by Dr. Jonas Salk -- or a placebo.

"I can't imagine what the disease would be today that could get that many parents to sign up their children for an experimental vaccine trial," said Daniel Wilson, a history professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., who has written three books on the history of polio in the United States and is himself a polio survivor. "I think it's a measure of how much people feared polio that mothers and fathers were willing to accept the word of researchers that the vaccine was safe."

Equally remarkable, the Salk polio vaccine trial stands as the largest peacetime mobilization of volunteers in American history, requiring the efforts of 325,000 doctors, nurses, educators and private citizens -- with no money from the federal government or pharmaceutical companies.

Starting Monday, Dec. 1, HealthDay begins a two-day series that examines the historic undertaking and its impact on medicine, which is felt to this day.


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